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New Titan prison

Russell Webster keeps you up-to-date on the latest step in the government's plan to modernise our prison system

Earlier this week Ministers signed off on the latest stage in the government’s plans to modernise our prison estate.

In one of his last duties before returning to the Department for International Development as a consequence of the Gavin Williamson sacking, Prisons Minister Rory Stewart confirmed that a price of £253 million (excluding VAT) had been agreed with Kier for the design and construction of a new prison at Wellingborough, in Northamptonshire. Work on the 1,680-place category C resettlement prison is scheduled to begin next month and to be completed by autumn 2021.

The new prison will be located at the same site as the former HMP Wellingborough, which closed in 2012.

The new prison is part of the Government’s “Prison Estate Transformation Programme”, which is reforming and modernising the prison estate to ensure conditions are suitable for rehabilitation of offenders while reducing crowding across the estate.

Along with Wellingborough, the programme will deliver a new prison at the former HMP & YOI Glen Parva in Leicestershire and a new house block at HMP Stocken, in Rutland.

Kier, who previously built the massive 2106-place Category C male prison at HMP Oakwood near Wolverhampton which opened in April 2012, issued a press release in which they claim to be “dedicated to investing in the communities in which we work and our commitment to apprenticeships and job opportunities will not only help address the skills shortage that our industry faces but also provide a lasting legacy for the people of Wellingborough”.

Kier’s approach is to pre-fabricate many of the prison’s component buildings off site to speed up the construction process and limit the time on the actual building site. This so-called modular approach involves much use of precast concrete; in the case of HMP Oakwood, more than 13,000 precast units were manufactured offsite before been delivered and craned into position.

It’s clear that these new modern prisons provide much better living and working facilities for prisoners and the staff charged with their care, especially compared to our crumbling Victorian prisons such as Pentonville, Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs. Building such large prisons is economically attractive and HMP Oakwood boasts one of the cheapest costs per place in the prison estate.

However, many justice reformers voice strong opposition to these new super-sized “Titan” prisons which are notoriously difficult to run safely and inevitably mean that the majority of prisoners are held many miles from home, making family ties hard to maintain and resettlement plans difficult to achieve.

The other main concern is that modern new prisons, despite providing better living conditions and being more economical to operate, will not necessarily result in the closure of our outdated establishments. History tells us that the more capacity we have in our prison estate, the more likely we are to send people to prison. In, the 15 years between 1993 and 2008, for example, the prison population grew by an average of four per cent every year despite a long and sustained drop in the crime rate over the same period. Reformers claim that we should be sending fewer people to prison and closing our most outdated prisons in a methodical, planned way, with the added bonus of garnering extra money for the public purse by selling the land (much of it on prime inner city sites) to developers.

We must wait and see whether history repeats itself when the new HMP Wellingborough is completed in two years time.